Thomas Earl Petty (October 20, 1950 – October 2, 2017) was an American singer, songwriter, musician, record producer and actor. He was the lead singer and guitarist of the band Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, formed in 1976. He had previously formed the band Mudcrutch, and was also a member of the late 1980s supergroup Traveling Wilburys.
Petty recorded a number of major hits both with the Heartbreakers and as a solo artist. His successful songs with the Heartbreakers include Don”t Do Me Like That (1979), Refugee (1980), The Waiting (1981), Don”t Come Around Here No More (1985) and “Learning to Fly” (1991). Of his releases as a solo artist, his singles I Won”t Back Down (1989), Free Fallin” (1989) and You Don”t Know How It Feels (1994) were a major success. During his career he sold more than 80 million records worldwide, making him one of the best-selling artists of all time. In 2002 Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were honored with induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and in 2016 Tom Petty was honored with induction into the American Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Petty died of a cardiac arrest caused by a drug overdose on October 2, 2017, a week after the end of the 40th anniversary tour of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
Born on October 20, 1950, in Gainesville, Florida, Petty was the eldest son of Kitty (Katherine) Petty, a local tax collector, and Earl Petty, a store owner and salesman. He had one brother, Bruce, seven years his junior. His interest in rock and roll music began at the age of ten when he met Elvis Presley. In the summer of 1961, an uncle was working on the set of Presley”s film Follow That Dream (released in Greek as Summer in Florida) in nearby Ocala, Florida, and took Petty to watch the filming. He instantly became a fan of Presley and the next day traded his sling with his friend Keith Harben for a set of Elvis” 45-rpm vinyl records. “Elvis was glowing,” Petty later said of that meeting with Presley.In a 2006 interview, Petty said he decided to form a band the moment he saw The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. “The moment I saw The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show – and this is true for thousands of others – I knew that this was the way out. This was the way to do it. You get friends together and you”re a self-contained group. And you write the music. And it looked like so much fun. It was something I identified with. I was never particularly fanatical about sports. … I was a big Elvis fan. But with the Beatles I really saw something I could do. I knew I could do it. Soon bands started popping up in garages left and right.” He dropped out of high school at 17 for his new band where he played bass.
In a 2014 CBC interview, he said that the Rolling Stones were “my punk music”. He said they were an inspiration, as they proved that musicians like him could make it in rock and roll.
Don Felder, also a Gainesville resident and later a member of the Eagles, claimed in his autobiography that he was one of Petty”s first guitar teachers, although Petty himself had stated that Felder taught him to play the piano. At a young age Petty worked as a gardener at the University of Florida, but never attended the University. A tree he supposedly planted while working at the university is called “Tom Petty”s tree” (Petty himself had mentioned that he did not remember planting trees). He also worked for a short time as an undertaker.
Petty had a difficult relationship with his father. According to him, his father found it difficult to accept that Petty was ”a mild-mannered child, interested in the arts” and regularly used verbal and physical abuse. Petty had described him as a ”wild guy, a gambler and a drinker”. Petty had a close relationship with his mother and maintained a good relationship with his brother, Bruce.
1976-1987: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Having decided to pursue music, Petty started a band called “Epics”, which later evolved into Mudcrutch. Mudcrutch included later Heartbreakers members Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench III and were popular in Gainesville but failed to experience wider success. They recorded at Church Studio in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Their only single, titled Depot Street, was released in 1975 on Shelter Records, but failed to make the charts.
After Mudcrutch broke up, Petty decided to go it alone and Tench formed his own band. Eventually, Petty and Campbell teamed up again with Tedds as well as Ron Blair on bass and Stan Lynch on drums to form the Heartbreakers, eventually called Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. Their self-titled first album was more successful in Britain than in the US. The singles American Girl and Breakdown (re-released in 1977) reached No. 40 after the band toured the UK, playing solo at Nils Lovgren concerts. Their first album was released on Shelter Records, distributed at the time by ABC Records.
Their second album, “You”re Gonna Get It!”, made the top 40, and included the singles I Need to Know and Listen to Her Heart. Their third album, entitled “Damn the Torpedoes”, quickly went platinum, selling nearly two million copies, and included the singles Don”t Do Me Like That, Here Comes My Girl, Even the Losers and Refugee.
In September 1979, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers performed at a concert entitled Musicians United for Safe Energy at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Their rendition of Solomon Burke”s song “Cry to Me” was included on the concert”s album released under the title “No Nukes”.
Their 4th album “Hard Promises” was released in 1981, entered the top 10 hits, went platinum and its most successful single was The Waiting. It also included Insider, Petty”s first duet with Stevie Nicks.
Bassist Ron Blair decided to leave the band and on the fifth album, “Long After Dark” (1982), he was replaced by Howie Epstein. The album included the hit song You Got Lucky. In 1985 they participated in Live Aid, playing four songs at John F. Kennedy Stadium, Philadelphia. In 1985, they released their 6th album, Southern Accents, in 1985. The album included the hit song Don”t Come Around Here No More, produced by Dave Stewart. In the song”s video clip, Petty appears as “Mad Hatter”, mocking and chasing Alice (from the book Alice”s Adventures in Wonderland), and then slicing and eating her like a cake. The ensuing tour resulted in the live album “Pack Up the Plantation: Live!” and an invitation from Bob Dylan to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers to join him on his “True Confessions Tour”. During this tour they also played some shows with the Grateful Dead in 1986 and 1987. Also in 1987 the band released their 7th studio album titled “Let Me Up (I”ve Had Enough)” which includes the song Jammin” Me written by Campbell, Petty and Dylan.
1988-1991: Traveling Wilburys and solo career
In 1988, Tom Petty and George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne formed the supergroup Traveling Wilburys. The band”s first song, entitled Handle with Care, was intended as the B-side of a Harrison single but as it was considered too good to have that ending, the originally haphazard group decided to record a full album, entitled Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1. In 1990, but without Roy Orbison who had died in late 1988, a second album followed with the playful title Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1. 3. The album was given this title in response to, among other things, the various pirated studio recording albums that had been released under the title Travelling Wilburys Vol. 2. Petty included Traveling Wilburys songs in his concerts, such as “Handle with Care” which was played continuously from 2003 to 2006, and on the 2008 tour included “surprises” such as End of the Line.
In 1989, Tom Petty released the solo album Full Moon Fever, which included the hits I Won”t Back Down, Free Fallin” and Runnin” Down a Dream. The album featured, to a greater or lesser extent, all members of the Heartbreakers (except drummer Stan Lynch) and all members of the Traveling Wilburys (except Bob Dylan); co-producers on the album were Tom Petty, Mike Campbell and Jeff Lynn. Ringo Starr also appears in the I Won”t Back Down music video, although Phil Jones was the drummer on the recording of the song.
In 1991, again produced by Jeff Lynn, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released the album Into the Great Wide Open. It included the hits Learning to Fly and Into the Great Wide Open. Johnny Depp and Faye Dunaway appeared in the latter”s music video.
Before the band discontinued their partnership with MCA Records, they released a Greatest Hits compilation for which they recorded two new songs live in the studio. Mary Jane”s Last Dance (composed by Petty) and a cover of Something in the Air by Thunderclap Newman. This was also the last time the band recorded with Stan Lynch as drummer. Petty later reported that “He left directly after the recording without even saying goodbye”. The compilation has sold over twelve million copies, and has been named a Diamond Record according to the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America), being Tom Petty”s best-selling album to date.
1991-2017: move to Warner Records
In 1989, while still under contract with MCA, Petty signed a contract with Warner Records, which had released the Traveling Wilburys albums. His first album with the new label (the second of his three solo albums) was released in 1994 and was titled Wildflowers. It included the title track, as well as the singles “You Don”t Know How It Feels”, “You Wreck Me”, “It”s Good to Be King” and “A Higher Place”. The album, produced by Rick Rubin, has sold over three million copies in the United States.
In 1996, Petty, along with the Heartbreakers, released the soundtrack of the film She”s the One (released in Greece under the title “Two Brothers, Their Wives and a Mistress”) starring Cameron Diaz and Jennifer Aniston. The singles released from this album were “Walls (Circus)” (featuring Lindsay Buckingham), “Climb that Hill”, and Change the Locks (by Lucinda Williams). The album also included a cover of Beck”s “Asshole”. That same year, the band accompanied Johnny Cash in recording the album American II: Unchained (tentatively titled “Petty Cash”), which won the Grammy Award for Best Country Album of the Year.
In 1999 Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released their last album, produced by Rubin, entitled Echo. From Echo, two singles were released in the US: “Room at the Top” and “Free Girl Now”. The album went all the way to No. 10 on the Billboard 200 chart in the US.
At the charity concert entitled America: A Tribute to Heroes (to support the families of the victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks), Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers performed “I Won”t Back Down”. The following year, at the Concert for George concert honoring Petty”s friend, former Beatle and former Traveling Wilburys member George Harrison, the band performed “Taxman,” “I Need You” (Harrison”s compositions) and “Handle with Care” (by the Traveling Wilburys, featuring Jeff Lynn, Danny Harrison and Jim Keltner).
In 2002, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released their 11th studio album, The Last DJ, through which Petty criticized the music industry, the practices of its executives and the state the music business was in. The inspiration for the title song was reportedly the Los Angeles radio producer Jim Ladd. The lyrics decry the loss of freedom of expression at radio stations as producers can no longer freely choose the songs to play but must follow lists dictated by the stations. The album reached number 9 on the Billboard 200 in the US.
In 2005, Petty started his own radio show called “Buried Treasure” on the subscription-based XM Satellite Radio, in which he shared selections from his personal discography with the public.
In 2006, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers organized a tour with concerts in the US and Canada to celebrate the band”s 30th anniversary. The tour was entitled “Highway Companion
In July 2006, Petty released his third and final solo album entitled Highway Companion, which included the hit “Saving Grace”. It peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard 200; the highest position on the charts for Petty since the introduction of the Nielsen SoundScan system for counting album sales in 1991. The promotion of Highway Companion was aided by the 2006 tour of the same name with the Heartbreakers, which included the album”s songs “Saving Grace”, “Square One”, “Down South” and “Flirting with Time”.
In the summer of 2007, Petty decided to reunite his old band from the early 1970s, before the Heartbreakers, Mudcrutch, and invited members Tom Leadon and Randall Marsh along with Beaumont Tench and Mike Campbell to get back together to record their first album. They recorded a 14-song album that was released on April 29, 2008 (an additional song titled “Special Place” was available to those who pre-ordered the album on iTunes). The band did a short tour in the spring of 2008 to promote the album.
In 2007, Petty and the Heartbreakers participated in the compilation in honor of Fats Domino entitled Goin” Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino with a cover of the song “I”m Walkin””. Proceeds from the sales were used to purchase musical instruments for students in New Orleans public schools and to build a community center in the Ninth Ward of the borough that was hit by Hurricane Katrina.
On February 3, 2008, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers performed the customary “halftime concert” in the 42nd final of the U.S. professional football Super Bowl XLII at the University of Phoenix Stadium. They performed the songs “American Girl”, “I Won”t Back Down”, “Free Fallin”” and “Runnin” Down a Dream”. That same summer, they toured North America with Steve Winwood opening the shows. At some concerts Winwood performed songs with Petty and the Heartbreakers including “Gimme Some Lovin””, his old hit with the Spencer Davis Group. In November 2009, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released a four-disc collection of live recordings of their concerts from 1978 to 2006. It was titled The Live Anthology.
The band”s 12th studio album Mojo was released on June 15, 2010, reaching No.2 on the Billboard 200. According to Petty himself, the album has blues influences with the mood of some songs being reminiscent of the Allman Brothers. In promotion of the album, the band appeared on the television show Saturday Night Live on May 15, 2010, followed by a summer tour of North America.
In 2012 the band began touring the world, including performing for the first time in the Canadian provinces of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland & Labrador, returning to continental Europe for the first time in 13 years and doing their first major European tour in 20 years.
On July 28, 2014, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers” 13th studio album, Hypnotic Eye, was released by Reprise Records. The album went straight to No. 1 on the Billboard 200, bringing the band to the top of the best-selling albums list for the first time in 38 years of their musical career. November 20, 2015 marked the debut of the Tom Petty Radio channel on SiriusXM satellite radio.
In 2017, Heartbreakers embarked on a 40th Anniversary Tour to celebrate the band”s 40th anniversary. In addition to the US shows, it included a show in London”s Hyde Park, which was to be their last show in Europe. Before the tour began, Petty suffered a hip fracture but chose to postpone surgery and treat the pain with a cocktail of drugs, including opioids. The tour began on April 20 in Oklahoma City, was temporarily interrupted in late August due to Petty”s illness, and ended with three shows at the Hollywood Bowl in Hollywood, California, with the last one on September 25, 2017. The last song they performed live at that concert was “American Girl”.
On September 28, 2018, Reprise Records released An American Treasure, a collection of 60 songs from Tom Petty”s entire career with many previously unreleased recordings, alternative versions of well-known songs, rare versions, historic live performances and songs that had not become hits. As a precursor to the collection, the single “Keep A Little Soul” was released, in July 2018, which was first recorded, unreleased, in 1982 during the production of the album Long After Dark.
Petty made various appearances, mostly with comic elements, in television and film. His first film appearance was a brief appearance in the 1978 film FM. He later had a small role in the 1978 film Made in Heaven (released in Greek under the title Paradise Does Not Wait) and also appeared in three episodes of the humorous series It”s Garry Shandling”s Show between 1987 and 1989, playing himself as one of Gary Sandlin”s neighbours. He also appeared on Shandling”s other show (The Larry Sanders Show).
Petty participated in the 1997 film The Postman (released in Greece under the title Between Two Worlds), directed by and starring Kevin Costner, as the mayor of Bridge City. It is implied from the film”s dialogue that he is playing himself in a hypothetical future version of himself. In 2002 he appeared on The Simpsons in the episode “How I Spent My Strummer Vacation”, alongside Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Lenny Kravitz, Elvis Costello and Brian Setzer. In the episode he is introduced to Homer Simpson as a lyric teacher, composing a short song about a drunk girl driving while reflecting on the state of public schools. Later in the same episode, he loses a toe from his foot during riots.
He also had a regular role in the animated series King of the Hill from 2004 to 2009, as Elroy “Lucky” Kleinschmidt. In 2010 Petty made a brief 5-second appearance alongside actor Alec Baldwin in the Great Day video clip from the comedy group The Lonely Island.
Petty gained a reputation as a champion of the arts
In 1987 Petty filed a lawsuit against the B.F. Goodrich tire company seeking $1 million for using a song in a television commercial that was too similar to his song “Mary”s New Car”. The advertising company that produced the ad had previously asked Petty to use his song but he had refused. The court issued an injunction prohibiting further use of the advertisement and ultimately Petty was vindicated. Also, Petty did not allow the use of “I Won”t Back Down” in the George W. Bush (Jr.) campaign in 2000. His family did the same against Donald Trump”s 2020 campaign, stating that “Tom Petty would never want one of his own songs used in a hate campaign.”
Some have claimed that the Red Hot Chili Peppers” song “Dani California”, released in May 2006, has strong similarities to Petty”s “Mary Jane”s Last Dance”. He told Rolling Stone magazine, “I really doubt there”s any ill intent here. A lot of rock and roll songs are similar. Ask Chuck Berry. The Strokes took ”American Girl” for their song ”Last Nite,” and I saw an interview where they openly admitted it. That made me laugh. “Okay, good for you,” I thought. … If someone took my song note for note and stole it maliciously, then maybe . But I”m not a big believer in lawsuits. I think this country has enough baseless lawsuits as it is; no need to add pop song controversies to the mix.”